Semester Abroad, Global Correspondents

Beyond the Surface

September 27, 2019
By Thomas Maggiola, CAS '21

Thomas Maggiola is one of the Semester Abroad Global Correspondents, writing and sharing his experience abroad during the Fall 2019 semester. Follow along with the group of correspondents on our blog and look out for their student takeovers on the @pennabroad Instagram beginning September 23, 2019.

Semester Abroad
CIEE Rio de Janeiro

From the outside, Brazil is often misunderstood. When I would tell people beforehand about my plans to spend a semester abroad there, I received a broad range of reactions, and as a result, I had no idea what to expect upon arrival. All Americans have the image of Christ the Redeemer, stoically watching over Rio de Janeiro, engrained in their minds, but not much else.

As an enigmatic country of over 200 million, Brazil is inherently a very complex society. Going to Brazil, I was hoping to be able to form meaningful connections with people to be able to learn as much as possible through linguistic and cultural immersion. I wanted to break through stereotypes and gain a deeper understanding of how people live and view the world in a country very different from my own but wasn’t sure how much this would happen. The way that Brazilians have in turn embraced me, as a foreign student, and helped me along this path toward obtaining my goal has gone far beyond anything I could’ve expected or asked for.

Recently, I took a solo weekend trip to the city of Recife, in the northeast. I was expecting to just get to know the sights (and eat a lot) while getting to know the city by myself.  As I settled into my Airbnb on the Friday night, a gathering of Brazilians, just a little older than me, was beginning in the living room. I still don’t know what the occasion was, but I went to the kitchen to get some water and was immediately urged to join them. Despite being exhausted having slept less than 3 hours the previous night due to my travel plans, I obliged. This was without a doubt one of the best decisions I made on this trip. 

For the next 5 hours, we talked, ate, laughed, sang, danced, and everything in between. It was as if I had known these people for years, as their openness and willingness to engage in cultural exchange with me formed an instant bond. They promised to come up to Philadelphia for my graduation from Penn, but we’ll see about that. When I finally said goodnight at 3:30 am, I felt incredibly fulfilled. 

This openness and acceptance are things that I have experienced throughout my first 7 weeks in Brazil, not just that night in Recife. My classmates, professors, host family, Uber drivers, random people in the metro, and even the guy I buy churros from near the beach, all people from diverse backgrounds, have shown an immense openness to me and, by sharing their perspectives on life, are helping make me a more well-rounded global citizen. Beforehand, I thought the best part of living in Rio would be the incredible scenery; rather, it has been the daily interactions that I have found the be incredibly valuable and rewarding.

To me, this is what the study abroad experience is about. I am connecting with people and learning about their perspectives on life, all while conversing in Portuguese. Anybody who knows me knows that I am not the most extroverted or the most willing to reach out to new people. Despite this, the kindness of the Brazilians I have encountered has facilitated this meaningful exchange.

I arrived in Brazil without a clear idea of what I would be learning from this experience. A third of the way through, I feel as though I have formed a meaningful and emotional bond with this country and its people, and it is so exciting to be able to gain a deeper understanding of Brazil, beyond the surface.

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The Semester Abroad (SA) program offers undergraduate students the opportunity to study in a new global community through extended study for a semester or year. Penn Abroad partners with top institutions around the globe and collaborates with Penn’s undergraduate schools to offer programs for students across academic disciplines.